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I don’t recognize Sweden anymore

Jim Stenman is a Swedish-Ethiopian journalist. He has worked as a producer for CNN International in Europe and the Gulf, and reported for Reuters and the BBC World Service.

As Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson arrived in my childhood hometown of Eskilstuna recently, even she must have realized that Sweden was losing its war on gang violence. 

Only a day earlier, the city had finally earned its title of “Little Chicago” — a term casually used during my teenage years, especially when describing rougher parts of town. 

Though I never took the analogy seriously, that day, one of those areas became the scene of sheer horror, when a woman and a young child were shot at a playground. Police have since linked the incident to gang crime, and thankfully, it didn’t result in any fatalities — both survived.  

While addressing the shooting, Sweden’s first female leader, who has been in office for less than a year, warned that criminal gangs now pose a threat for “anyone who happens to come in their way, even normal law-abiding citizens.” And she made a direct correlation between violence and a rise in the drug trade, which she vowed to have a national conversation about, and to crack down on crime by abandoning Sweden’s soft penal code. 

For Andersson, talking tough on crime may be a necessity rather than a choice. Her center-left coalition government risks being voted out of office in the country’s general election tomorrow, as the vote takes place against a backdrop of a rising inflation and mounting fears over Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea. 

Many Swedes, as I do, feel the country’s heading in the wrong direction. 

A few months ago, three young men in neighboring Örebro were shot dead over the span of eight days, part of a wave of gang violence spreading across Sweden. And while I never expected the country to turn into a gangster’s paradise, it’s always been obvious to me that our approach to integration has been a ticking time bomb. 

Born in the early 1980s, I witnessed firsthand just how difficult it can be to become part of mainstream Swedish society. My mother, an Ethiopian refugee, certainly ticked all the “right” boxes, such as marrying a local and accepting whatever jobs came her way. 

Still, she was never fully accepted as Swedish, despite having a near perfect command of the language and being clearly embedded within the culture.

It seemed to me that people like her faced an element of otherness that was difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Moreover, many of my friends, some of whom were born to parents from the Middle East, chose not to identity as Swedish, despite being raised in the country. 

Sweden, which had a largely homogenous population in the past, has faced serious challenges in welcoming non-European immigrants into its society. And I believe this may partly explain the difficult situation facing the country today. 

Sweden experienced labor-based immigration in the late 1960s. And government data shows significant migrant arrivals from Iran in the late 1980s and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Immigration numbers then reached an all-time high in 2016, as the country, alongside Germany, opted for a largely open-border policy when it came to Syrian refugees. 

As of 2021, Sweden had over 196,000 Syrian-born residents — a significant number for a country with a population of about 10 million. The total number of foreign-born people has rapidly increased over the last two decades, now amounting to 20 percent of the overall population. And though Syrians make up the largest group of immigrants, those born in Iraq and Finland also contribute to Sweden’s foreign-born population. 

Personally, I don’t buy into the extreme belief held by some Swedes that immigrants largely come to our country to exploit its generous welfare system. But according to the European Commission, as things stand, the unemployment rate among foreign-born residents is more than four times that of native Swedes. It only stands to reason this breeds exclusion. 

And it’s perhaps not surprising that 2022 is on track to become the worst year on record for violence, with nearly 50 deadly shootings so far — a reality that’s proving a major headache for Andersson’s center-left coalition government, which has been in power since 2014. And her own Social Democratic party has overseen years, if not decades, of failed integration policy under previous prime ministers. 

Offering sanctuary to those fleeing war is always the right thing to do, but Sweden’s experiment with multiculturalism seems to have taken a turn for the worse since 2016. 

I’m not suggesting Syrians, or any other migrant group, should be held responsible for the rise in gang crime. It’s particularly worth highlighting that the Swedish integration model was failing long before their arrival, even causing some naturalized Swedes, including others with Middle Eastern roots, to support the far right in bid to limit further immigration. 

But now, the country’s second largest party, the Sweden Democrats, is on a mission to restore what they perceive to be “traditional Swedish values.” Historically locked out of power due to other parties’ unwillingness to partner with them, they are projected to secure about 20 percent of the votes tomorrow, and they may be on track to play a key role in a possible center-right coalition that could end up ruling the country for the next four years. 

This would mark their first time in government, and it would certainly prove a game-changer for the country. The party’s priorities include ending segregated neighborhoods, curbing organized crime and limiting immigration. 

Though I may morally disagree with closing our borders to those in need, perhaps it’s the best way to recalibrate — at least temporarily — after decades of failed policies. 

While it’s impossible to turn back the clock on immigration, Sweden must find a way to solve its integration problem before it’s too late. And the only way to achieve this is by recognizing present-day Sweden for what it really is — a multicultural society. 

While the far right is effectively pitching to make “Sweden Great Again,” I’m convinced we need to forge a more inclusive national identity that recognizes the demographic changes of recent decades, while also embracing the unique dual heritages now present throughout our country.  

It is only by recognizing who we are that it’s possible to create a society that doesn’t breed exclusion or worse, crime.

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